Chapter 28

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The events of the last couple days cascaded through my mind. My mail interfered with. The lie about Albert repudiating me. Being kept in the dark about practically everything.

And it was all a test.

I could feel my jaw and shoulders tensing, but the twinge of pain from my wound quickly made me realize I had to relax. At least physically.

I carefully considered my options. I wanted it to be abundantly clear that I was angry, but I also needed to keep my words from being too disrespectful.

“So. You… orchestrated this.” My voice was rough with restraint, scratchy. I had to swallow after just those few words.

Someone’s clothing whispered behind me as they shifted their weight, either Don or Riko.

Lieutenant Davis’s eyes moved slightly, looking beyond me as he shook his head fractionally. From the angle of his gaze, he was looking at Don.

Don, I’m not that big of a fool. I thought as I tilted and turned my head slightly to make sure Don knew I’d heard him moving. I caught the lieutenant’s eye and nodded fractionally as I turned my head back to the Stateman.

The whole time, I never looked away from the Stateman by more than a few degrees. Breaking eye contact briefly to acknowledge Don and the lieutenant was enough for me to regain most of my composure.

Stateman Urda spoke before I could express more displeasure, interrupting me as I opened my mouth. “Even though I trust my officers, I would be a fool not to verify what they tell me.” She paused. “Even if their assessment of you had been fully accurate, it was based on your behavior prior to your encounter with Albert. I think the future of mankind is important enough that I was justified in poking and prodding you to see if you were going to need to be drugged and shipped to the male prison colony.”

My head jerked back as the last sentence registered. “I’m fifteen.”

Her eyes were unblinking for several seconds as we stared at each other. It was almost impossible for me to hold her gaze as she responded, but I did my best not to show weakness. You do not run from a predator, and you must control your fear.

With a slight nod, she acknowledged me. “True. However, when the militia is activated in a time of potential interstate conflict, the acting Stateman has the right to send highly disruptive citizens of their own state to the prison colonies. Exile requires three-quarters of a State’s currently sitting Countymen to agree with the motion. There is no requirement for an exile to be a violence offender. Especially if they foment dissent, or are a self-declared risk to the state.” She paused and pointed her right index finger in my direction by moving her wrist without lifting her arm. “You are already a self-declared risk to the state. To all humanity for that matter. Albert has verified this.”

With a slight turn of her head towards her desk, she spoke again. “And Albert designed it that way, no doubt intentionally, to further whatever goals he has.”

She raised the sheaf of papers again, waved them, and put them back down. “Despite your age and anger management issues, you are clearly intelligent enough to recognize that Albert is guiding us towards some sort of test that none of us can predict. In addition, your contributions of various ideas have been valuable, showing you to be innovative, even after you stopped helping with military tactics.”

She glanced at the desk in front of her. “To be frank, I am probably as confused by Albert’s actions as you are, I just have the age and experience to see more possibilities.” Her voice grew slightly louder and sharper as she looked back to me. “With your past history, I almost chose to commit you to the prison colony as a precautionary measure. I had the votes to do so. The only reason you were not sent was because of these officers’ assessments of you. They advised me that if it was impressed upon you how important something was, you were a solid sort. Prone to anger. Impatient. Inexperienced. Overconfident. But dependable, honest, and serious.”

I shuddered, dry-swallowed, and forced myself to speak. I wasn’t any less angry, but I couldn’t see why she would lie about her ability to send me to the prison colony if I wasn’t being sent there. “Thank you, Stateman Urda.”

She nodded. “In any case, there was never any danger of your being imprisoned in total isolation or killed. Albert didn’t give me much information, but he did say that he wouldn’t exact the punishment on humanity if the prison colony residents were told what you know. He censors all correspondence they send and receive.”

When I registered the last two sentences, my thoughts came to a full stop.

That doesn’t make sense.

I considered what she had said a second time. It made even less sense the more I thought about it. I stared at the Stateman as my mind spun in circles, like one of Marza’s dogs chasing its own tail.

Why didn’t she send me? It doesn’t add up. She’s not a relative. No emotional attachment.

Albert basically told her she could safely get me out of the way without killing or fully isolating me, and she didn’t take that choice. The world against me, and she chose me?

I jumped a little, startled, as a braying laughter started. “Captain Marko, I stand corrected.” Stateman Urda choked out after she stopped her brief uncontrolled laughter. “I do not believe I’ve ever met anyone who telegraphs exactly what they are thinking quite so well as Allen here.”

I opened my mouth and shut it again. Think, Allen. That’s a dangerous question to ask.

Stateman Urda still seemed vaguely predatory, but not cold. “You recognized that there was no reason for me not to ship you off. Right now you are trying to figure out why you are not drugged unconscious and on a one way trip to the male prison colony. The answer is elementary. I consulted Albert.”

“He told you what he was doing?” I blurted out without thinking.

Her head dropped down a little and she looked at her desk, shaking her head briefly before looking back up at me with a vanishing smile. “No. But I was able to get an answer out of him when I asked him if sending you to the prison colony would alter the likelihood of him taking civilization from us. He advised that if you were sent to the prison colony, isolated, or killed, it would be somewhere between two and six times more likely that he would be forced to de-civilize Nirvana. He refused to comment on what his estimations for either possibility were. It might be the difference between fifty percent and one hundred percent, or some tiny fraction that humans can’t conceptualize.”

She shrugged. “If the differential possibility is subtle, Albert wouldn’t be expending this much effort for a low probability outcome. Make no mistake, he’s not idle right now, even if he’s purposefully being obtuse with us. He wouldn’t have dropped you on hot rocks and exposed himself to more extensive computational requirements without good reason. Not when so many other forces are in motion.”

I could only blink as I tried to process that. “I-”

My mouth snapped shut. Dangerous topic.

I had almost mentioned Albert saying that I wasn’t the only person who had the same idea I had. That had to be part of Albert’s calculations.

The Stateman’s eyes glittered like black glass marbles as she stared at me, nodding slightly like she had learned something.

Captain Marko spoke into the silence. “I’m very glad that you now have a fuller understanding of what I’ve been dealing with for the last couple days, Allen.”

When I looked at him, he was staring at me, with his elbows on the table in front of him. A barely visible smile was mostly hidden behind his two hands, with their fingers interlaced together in front of his face.

His face and posture indicated that he didn’t think anything was funny, despite his smile. My eyes darted back and forth between him and Stateman Urda, who was watching me carefully.

She didn’t interfere, so I responded to the captain. “I have no reason to apologize for any discomfort you might have experienced in the last couple days, sir,” I said, carefully adding emphasis on the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’.

Stateman Urda interrupted before Captain Marko could respond. “One statement. One response. You’re done now. As entertaining as it might be to watch you two verbally spar, I don’t want you intentionally irritating one another. This is my conversation. We’ll stay on my agenda.”

I looked away from Captain Marko and nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”

Captain Marko echoed me with his own “Yes, Stateman Urda.”

The Stateman steepled her fingers in front of her and stared through me, concentrating. “Albert has told me nothing about his plans. He never does, other than reciting his long-term goals of reducing human aggressiveness that we’ve all heard thousands of times as we were educated. I do have a different vantage point, and I didn’t get to be a Stateman by being dull.”

After closing her eyes and breathing deeply in, and out, once, she continued. “You are an innovator, and intelligent, but physically aggressive. You are not, however, highly acquisitive or materialistic beyond protecting what you consider yours. Your physical aggression is at least partly due to a recent event which developmentally scarred you.”

Recent? It was nearly two years ago!

Stiffening in anger, I responded a little heatedly. “I would do it the same way again, in the same situation, no matter how old I was.” I stared at her. Visions of Marza struggling with Rikard interposed themselves in my thoughts. There was a pain in my shoulder.

Calm.

The room felt tense. A moment later, Stateman Urda spoke. “You really do need to learn to control yourself a little better, Allen.”

I snapped a rapid response. “Sorry, Ma’am. That’s nowhere near the top of my to-do list.”

Several people in the tent chuckled briefly. Even the Stateman laughed and leaned back in her chair. “You have a point. Body language control would be very low priority for me if I were in your situation, I suppose.” She made a throwing away motion with her right fist and arm. “In any case, I have no doubt that you would act violently again if provoked with severe threats to loved ones. In your defense, that’s a behavior Albert isn’t going to be able to weed out of humanity as long as people develop strong emotional bonds with one another. On the other hand, you’ve expressed that trait a lot more aggressively than normal. It was vital for me to know if your aggression might break into a different channel of expression if we stressed you.”

My mind flashed back to several suggestive comments by my guards over the last couple days. “Hiro and Kevin were baiting me to see if I would start trying to usurp authority.”

She nodded and rolled her right hand in front of her in a ‘go on’ motion. “And?”

I thought carefully for several seconds before answering. “They weren’t very good at it. I’d be lying if I said the idea of taking over didn’t cross my mind. I think everyone my age thinks we can do things better than people older and more experienced than us.” I shook my head. “In my experience, when I think like that, I’m usually wrong. Not every time, but often enough that betting the future of my family on me being some sort of military prodigy was not an option.”

I did not look for Captain Marko’s reaction. He would probably either be angry or smug. Seeing either expression on his face was likely to distract me.

Pausing with my left index finger raised in front of me, I gave myself several more seconds to think. I definitely didn’t want there to be any confusion about what I was about to say. “Even in a perfect scenario for me, I didn’t see any way I could take over without there being fighting amongst ourselves.” Another second to consider my words. “Watching most of the other militia trying to come to grips with the idea that we might be forced to kill other people who were strangers made me realize how much more traumatizing it would be if we fought each other, and killed acquaintances, friends, or even relatives.”

There were several low grumblings of agreement and slight nods from various people in the tent. The Stateman watched me, expressionless and intent, like a heron hunting frogs.

“In the end, there was zero chance that the officers would willingly relinquish their command to me. If I did manage to gather a following, which was no means certain because I am not experienced at leading people, it wouldn’t guarantee anything. I would be required to take over by force, and the militia would splinter between those following me and those following the officers. People would be injured, some might even die, and desertion after the fact would be rampant as people tried to escape the horror of what we’d just done to one another. No matter who won the battle for control, the militia would be far less capable than what the officers are building now.”

Stateman Urda nodded. “Your logic is sound, and you recognize your personal and situational limitations.” She closed her eyes briefly as she continued speaking. “You have at least a reasonable grasp of practicality. Your weakest points are a lack social self-control, especially when caught off guard or in emotionally charged situations. It’s apparent that you are punishing Rikard at the slightest provocation because you don’t feel his punishment under the law was sufficient, and you can get away with it until you turn sixteen.”

She paused and took a breath. “The episode that led to your conflict with Rikard has left some understandable mental scarring. After conversations with your Countyman, your family, and Marza on my way here, it is fairly clear that you are still making progress towards recovering from that event, in more ways than one.” She paused and looked directly at where the Captain was sitting. “I apologize to my officers and their NCO’s for doubting them, but the stakes were too high. Verifying what I do not know is part of my job. I now agree with your assessments of Allen in every way that matters.”

She tapped her index finger three times on the table. “Albert, as of now, has anyone in this room lied since Allen and I began to speak?”

Albert’s voice spoke from the desk in front of the Stateman. “Voice and body language analysis finds no evidence of intentionally spoken untruths, with near certainty. Metrics of verbal and body language patterns indicate unspoken comments were considered inconsequential or private, as opposed to evasive.”

I couldn’t see what the device looked like, and craning my neck for a better view seemed like a bad idea. It certainly wasn’t a large glass device like what our Countyman had in his home, and I didn’t think there was a large enough concealed space on the desk to hide a bat-like remote similar to the one used to speak to me.

Haven’t I seen enough of Albert?

How can he see all of us but I can’t see him?

It escaped nobody’s attention that the Stateman had asked Albert about lies after making her apology to the officers and NCO’s. There were several softly spoken comments from the militia officers, Riko, and Don, accepting the Stateman’s apology. I wasn’t sure what was expected of me, so I kept my mouth shut and stayed still.

After a few moments, the Stateman started speaking again. “Allen, I am hereby removing you from Captain Marko’s command, and attaching you to my staff of advisors, for the duration of this conflict.” She glared at me. “Provisionally. You will not be attending me in any political meetings until after you demonstrate a great deal more self-control than what I have seen so far. Do not expect to be involved in high-level deliberations.”

The man and woman seated on either side of the Stateman seemed startled and turned to face her, but she ignored them. The pair said nothing and quickly turned their heads back towards me, watching even more intently than before.

I did my best to control my voice. “Ma’am, does that mean you brought Zeke here to replace me?”

She looked at me oddly for a moment. “What? No. You are still serving the State of New Charleston in a time of potential conflict. Your brother was brought here for the reason you asked for him to come here.”

Jabbing a finger in my direction, she continued. “I am detaching you from Captain Marko’s command since Albert’s restrictions have made it so you cannot assist the militia with military innovation. In my estimation, the last thing we can afford is to put you directly in harm’s way. If you are wounded in combat, there are many scenarios I can imagine where you might tell someone whatever it is that Albert doesn’t want in humanity’s knowledge base.”

She stopped speaking for a moment, and her eyes moved a little back and forth as she looked up at me. “I will do my best to help you avoid those scenarios, for everyone’s sake. At the same time, I will demand that you be useful to me. This will not be a vacation. Your idea about the gill nets was an excellent idea. Ten minutes after I read it, I had Albert pass a message to all coastal or riverside Countymen, advising them to begin having gill nets made. I also had my natural resources department look at other outlawed harvesting methods to see if there were any that we could use for a season without irrevocably harming wildlife stocks. They came up with several good ideas. Opium-spiked corn set out for deer and other wild game, for example.”

The chuckle was impossible to stop. I couldn’t help but imagine deer staggering around in the woods, oblivious to hunters. The meat would be tainted with opium, of course, but it could be used sparingly, mixed into other foods, so that residual effects on humans would be minimal.

I wasn’t the only one to think it was funny. Others in the tent made amused noises. Stateman Urda smiled slightly. “Indeed. While cruel in a way, it would likely be at least a little funny to see.” Her expression grew serious. “Opium is also quite an effective appetite suppressant, so the opium might serve twice.”

I nodded while saying nothing. It felt good to be appreciated, and even better for my ideas to have led to other ideas that could help. I was still upset about her yanking my leash to force reactions from me, but I could understand why she had done it.

The Stateman continued. “If you disappoint or embarrass me, I will transfer you to the messenger’s guild and you will run your butt off for the rest of this conflict. I have been advised that the messenger’s guild tried to recruit you anyway.”

I breathed out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

The worst that might happen is that I might have to run messages? That’s a punishment?

She snorted a single suppressed laugh and her entire torso jerked slightly. “Learning to control your expression is definitely something we need to work on before you accompany me to any meetings outside of those with my advisors. It is, in fact, now going to be one of your top priorities, because I’m not going to have you following me around telling everyone what you’re thinking.”

She met my eyes in a more normal gaze, without the hardness I’d seen before. “I’m not being easy on you, Allen. I’m going to get the best use out of you that I can. If I can’t teach you to control your deportment in a manner appropriate to an aide, I’ll put you somewhere useful where you can stay a country bumpkin.”

What will people think about me getting away from the militia? Riko, Anu, the others…

Does it matter what people think?

The Stateman is taking me away, I’m not deserting anyone.

People-

My thoughts were interrupted by the Stateman. “What are you thinking for? I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. Go work with your brother to prepare your pigs and carriage for travel. We’re leaving tomorrow morning.”

Swine. I managed to avoid saying it out loud.

“I will allow you to ride with him for a few hours while I plan how I’m going to start teaching you what you need to know, but after that you will ride in my carriage on the way back to the city. The first thing I will insist on is that you will not carry that filthy pouch that you keep treats for your pigs in.”

Swine. I felt my eye twitch.

I wanted to correct her, but I knew it was the wrong thing to do. I refused to believe Zeke hadn’t made her aware of the term we preferred if they had traveled together. With what I had seen of her so far, this was obviously a test. One even I could see. I kept silent while I nodded acceptance. “Yes, ma’am. May I leave now?”

“Yes. You have one hour before I need you back here. I won’t want you around for political meetings any time soon, but I do want you present for the field trial of Karl, our prisoner. If nothing else, I’m certain I can count on you to make him nervous with your expressions.”

Be visibly angry at the man who had my boars killed? That, I can do.

I smiled broadly. “Yes, Ma’am. I’ll be back in an hour.”

As the tent flap closed behind me, I barely heard Captain Marko comment. “Are you sure, ma’am? I’m not entirely certain he won’t attack Karl.”

The Stateman’s voice carried clearly out to me as I walked away from the tent. “I think he’ll control himself. If he can’t, well, he’s not sixteen yet, and I’ll have more stones to throw at him while I try to train him. Don and Riko will be here if needed, and I’d like Lieutenant Davis as well, if you can spare him.”

She intended for me to hear that.

I’m tempted to just tell her to send me to work with the messengers.

But that would put me a long way from people who can implement any ideas I-.

I shook my head and walked rapidly towards my carriage. The carriage and sows wouldn’t get themselves ready for travel, and Zeke and I needed to talk about too many things. Daydreaming could come later.

**

Picking up one of the few remaining pieces of harness, Zeke spoke for the first time in several minutes. “You could always ask for a doctor to sever the muscles that control your vocal cords.” He pulled on a piece of leather to test it. “I’ve never heard of anyone having it done intentionally, but it might be possible to cut the muscles that make them work, without interfering too much with your airway. Tim Pauley couldn’t talk right after he was gored in the throat by a bull, but his airway was clear enough to let him work, and a bull horn is a lot less precise than even the worst doctor.”

Asking Zeke for advice might have been a bad idea.

I turned to stare at him, but he pretended not to notice. He couldn’t have missed it, we were sitting on the ground next to each other with a pile of harness between us. Unfortunately, his expression told me he wasn’t trying to be funny. He meant it. “Zeke, that wouldn’t solve anything. I could still write.”

“I doubt you would be as likely to accidentally write something as you would be to accidentally say something. Especially with that temper of yours.” After a pause, he continued. “I’ve never heard of anyone sleep-writing either. You’re going to be sleeping in good company on most nights soon, if you and Marza don’t fall apart in the next couple months.”

I shook my head. “I’ll think about it later if need be, but I’m definitely not considering it right now. Self-mutilation is low on the list of options.”

“What’s higher on the list?” Zeke was tense and didn’t look at me as he spoke. Instead, he watched his hands far more closely than was needed for routine harness inspection, which we could both do with our eyes closed, literally.

“Learning to better control myself. Like I said, the Stateman is taking me on as an aide for the duration of the conflict. She as much as said that she’s going to hound me into controlling myself better. With what I have running around in my head, and what happens if it gets out, I can get behind that idea.”

Zeke shrugged and looked sideways at me for a moment. I could see a little doubt on his face. “You know I’m not as creative as you, Allen, but you aren’t as grounded as me. I always look for the simplest solution that works. You tend to think longer when you aren’t forced to make a decision. I would have been making plans to have my ability to speak completely removed before I even broke camp to return from the lake if it had been me having that conversation with Albert.” He paused. “It’s hard to change yourself on a fundamental level. Neither of us has been very successful at it. Me with my bluntness, you with your temper.”

It does make sense, based on what he knows.

I wasn’t sworn to silence about my discussion with the Stateman.

“I would more seriously consider it, if Albert hadn’t told the Stateman that it was more likely he would de-civilize us if I were hidden away, killed, or drugged and sent to the prison colony. My presence is a mitigating factor, not an aggravating factor. Somehow.”

“Hrm.” Zeke looked at the swine under the carriage as his hands worked another section of harness, twisting, folding, pulling, and testing with rapid, careful movements. “So, in other words, you aren’t alone in having that knowledge which you can’t divulge. Albert thinks it’s more likely your absence will lead to those people dispensing what you know. Somehow. If he’s not playing a much deeper game.” He sighed. “That’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. How are you holding up?”

“I’m hoping that I’m only supposed to be a catalyst for something. Trying to imagine that I’m going to miraculously solve this problem single-handedly-”

I stopped speaking abruptly, and Zeke turned his head a little to look at me.

Smiling, I wriggled my left hand to draw Zeke’s attention, and then carefully lifted the hand to slap my injured right shoulder lightly for emphasis. “…is truly frightening.”

We both laughed for a few seconds. It felt good. But it couldn’t last. When I looked over at the hourglass, it was nearly empty.

“Allen, I wish I could help more.” He reached across my back with his right hand, carefully gripped my torso at armpit level, and then bounced me against him, shoulder to shoulder, never touching my injury. “You just do your best, little brother. We might look at the world differently, but one thing I’m not worried about is you failing because you didn’t try. I’ve never seen you back away from something because it’s a lot of work.” He looked at me and grinned, showing a lot of teeth. “Even if you’re sometimes a little slow to get started because you insist on trying to figure out a better way to do it.”

I felt tension draining out of me as I realized Zeke wasn’t going to try to press me on his idea of self-mutilation. He was trusting me to do the right thing. Not only that, he was trusting me to be able to figure out what the right thing was. There had been a severe shortage of trust being directed at me recently. Trust coming from my brother was a welcome mental balm. “Thanks, Zeke.”

I hope I can figure out what the right thing is, and that I can act on it when I see it.

“Eh, that’s what big brothers are for, right? At least half the job, anyway. When this mess is over, we can find something to argue about, alright?”

I elbowed him in the ribs. “Fine. Schedule one big argument for after second harvest. Neither of us has ever had to deal with as many sugar beets and radishes as we’ll get this harvest. I’m sure we can find something to squabble over as we process the crop.”

I hope we get that good harvest, and the chance to argue.

Zeke snorted. “That works for me.” I felt an elbow bump my ribs, and Zeke pointed at the hourglass. “Time for you to go back. Sand’s almost out. I’ll finish checking that harness and the others. Leave it where you’re sitting.”

I carefully set the harness aside and stood up from the ground. “In a way, I don’t want to see him. At the same time, I want to judge him for myself. Maybe it’ll help me some with closure. Especially if I am able to help the Stateman get some useful information out of him. Finally confronting the man who-”

I went silent, remembering Hoss and Bigboy hanging, field dressed, behind the kitchen.

Zeke didn’t wait long to fill the silence. In a low voice he muttered. “It’s not just about you in there, Allen. The Stateman is shrewd to a degree that’s hard to comprehend. Almost frightening.”

He stared at the horizon briefly, a serious, thoughtful expression on his face. “Scratch the ‘almost.’ Straight out frightening. She was starting to tell me about you before I was done telling her about you.” He gave me a sober look. “And getting most of it right.” He paused and coughed twice, quickly. “Sure, she’d spoken to Ma, Pa, Granpa, and Marza first, of course, but it was still unnatural. Before she ever met you, she seemed to know you as well as I do.”

I stared down at Zeke, where he was still sitting on the ground. “Really? No tall tales?” I’d certainly felt overmatched by the Stateman’s sheer intelligence and presence, but from what Zeke was telling me, the Stateman was beyond any level of intelligence I would have considered credible.

With an impish grin, Zeke responded. “I’m pushing your leg, not pulling it. See?” He reached out and smacked my thigh from where he was seated on the ground. “No joke, Allen. She’s really that smart. And I doubt you want to see what happens if you’re late when she expects you.” He waved a hand at me in a shooing motion. “Git. Just remember to watch her. I doubt she moves a muscle without a reason.”

I reflected on what was happening around me as I approached the tent. Albert had seemingly set me up as some sort of catalyst for whatever machinations he was using to test humanity. The Stateman was going to be trying to turn me into some sort of political aide, which was something I had little interest in. I was happy with the future I had planned out with Marza.

If I lose my calluses while I’m sitting on my backside behind a desk, my hands will be ground meat for the first couple months back on the farm.

I’ll probably lose a lot of endurance too.

The swine will be out of training, and I’ll have to be careful around them.

I almost walked into the tent and asked to be sent directly to the messenger guild, but when I was a half dozen steps away, I stopped. The Stateman might be frightening in her own way, but unlike Albert, she was human. More importantly, unlike Albert, I could watch her and had a good chance of learning from her. Even if I couldn’t match her.

I’d be a fool to miss the opportunity to watch a first-class mind at work.

Even if she drives me mad in only a couple days, I could learn a lot.

I nodded to the tent guards and announced myself as I started walking towards the tent again. “Allen Rickson, reporting to the Stateman as requested.”

From inside the tent, the Stateman answered. “Let him in.”

The guards let me pass, and I entered to find that the tent had been completely rearranged. There were three chairs visible, two on one side of where the large table had been earlier, and one on the other.

In the single chair, the man who had tried to kill me was sitting with a heavily bandaged stump of a leg. He was restrained the same way Brad had been, leather and rope shackles, arms, torso, and waist. He certainly wasn’t running anywhere, but he was still held in his seat by four ropes attached to a heavy leather belt and staked to the ground.

Brad hadn’t been restrained with staked ropes, but Brad hadn’t been in the same tent with the Stateman.

Opposite him, roughly ten feet away, the Stateman sat in one seat and patted the seat next to her. “Your seat is here, Allen.”

The man and woman who had been sitting next to Stateman Urda earlier were standing behind her chair now. The man would be standing directly behind me when I was seated. He stared at me as I approached, but I didn’t get a sense of threat, just watchfulness.

I moved through the tent and sat next to Stateman Urda, as directed. The Stateman didn’t appear to be trying to communicate with me. She was consulting written notes.

I glared at the man who had tried to kill me. To his right was Don. On the other side was Riko. Lieutenant Davis took up a position by the tent entrance. He was the only officer present, which surprised me.

I stiffened when I saw who was behind the prisoner, smiling at me.

Rikard. I’m going to wipe that smile-

I stopped myself from moving, and it took all my self-control to not glare at Stateman Urda.

Zeke was right.

This didn’t happen by accident.

While the Stateman flipped papers back and forth, I stared at the sitting prisoner, focusing all of my anger at him. In my field of view were both the man who had tried to rape my future wife, and the man who had killed my two boars and had made an effort to do the same to me. Sitting next to me was a woman who was manipulating me like a carpentry tool.

I had plenty of anger to focus.

The prisoner was looking at me nervously, but his eyes weren’t tracking properly. I knew how painful an amputated lower leg could be, from my childhood memories of Granpa after he lost his. He would either be in incredible pain, or heavily sedated, and he wasn’t in apparent pain.

With a rustle of paper, the Stateman passed her bundle of notes to the woman standing behind her.

It surprised me that she didn’t stand when she started to speak, but we certainly weren’t in a formal courtroom. “Karl Sweep, you are being accused of a premeditated act of violence against another human. Do you deny the charge?”

Karl’s voice was slurred. He was clearly sedated. “I d’noth recognith tha jurisdiction of New Charlthon. New Charlthon and New Tokyoo er mobilithed again one another, an hothtilities haf started.”

Stateman Urda immediately replied. “This is not a New Charleston court, it is a Nirvana Court, Mr. Sweep. I am the Stateman of New Charleston. Albert is present at these proceedings.” She pointed to the side of the tent, at a small, shiny object hovering in midair. Roughly the volume of my fist, but flattened. The alternating bright glinting surfaced and light drinking sections indicated the presence of a high albedo metal encased in glass or clear plastic, and something dark that was likely an advanced carbon composite.

Peering comically at the floating device, Karl spoke again. “If thas Albert, and thish is real court, want metal clearithy from drugth.” He glared at the floating device. “Know me righths”

Albert’s voice emerged from the floating ovoid. “Karl Sweep, I will approach you now, and offer medical treatment delivered by low pressure compressed air into your nasal passages. Roughly ten seconds after treatment, you will experience a brief period of unconsciousness. In less than one minute after you go unconscious, you will wake. At that time, your mind will be clear, and you will be incapable of feeling pain. This state of affairs will last roughly one hour, and can be repeated up to four times with local resources, if necessary. I will be the judge of necessity. You must agree that the brief period of unconsciousness is acceptable before I will provide the treatment.”

Karl’s mind seemed less effected than his lips. I suppose that the shock of meeting Albert probably went a long way towards countering depressant drugs, at least temporarily. He didn’t hesitate. “I athept.”

Watching Albert’s device floating through the air towards Karl was thrilling. The early years of all school curriculums were full of lessons to make sure students knew Albert was an artificial intelligence created by humanity, not some sort of deity.

A sufficiently advanced technology can produce effects that might be confused with supernatural agency by the ignorant. Albert certainly could demonstrate unnatural-looking physics to most of the population. I wasn’t ignorant, but seeing something that looked solid floating through the air, defying any physics I’d ever had the opportunity to see in action, still gave me chills. It just seemed fundamentally wrong, even though I knew it was possible. I had no references. Even the tiny remote I’d seen before had looked like a bat, and flown like one.

It’s like tossing a rock, and watching it get stuck in midair.

I was staring at the device and trying to see how it flew when I noticed a sound coming from the floor. When I looked down, I saw a thick rug under us that I hadn’t seen before. Underneath Albert’s remote, I saw the rug flexing slightly.

I double-checked. There was nothing between the rug and the floating machine.

Some sort of magnetic field?

I could barely remember anything about electromagnetics. It was mostly taught so we would understand static electricity and lightning in its various forms, as well as animal nervous systems and the electrical senses of many aquatic animals. I knew it was possible to generate physical force with electrical field interactions. The moving divot in the rug was proof that force was being exerted. The equations wouldn’t come to mind though. I hadn’t even thought about them for at least five years.

I’ll try to derive the equations later. That’s got to take a lot of power.

Wait. Does that mean the rug is full of metal too?

I stared at the rug, which might be worth dozens of farms, even if only a small fraction of it were metallic.

The Stateman poked the side of my thigh with her finger, and I looked at her.

She turned her head slightly towards me, caught my eyes with her left eye, shifted that eye to look at the prisoner, and then back to me. All without moving her head more than a few degrees.

The meaning was clear. I nodded fractionally and started staring at the prisoner again. I felt my anger begin to grow as Rikard caught my eye and smiled, again.

So help me, if he says Marza’s name after this, I’m going to knock him to the ground so hard he’ll bounce back to his feet again.

I suddenly realized that the Stateman might be planning to take Rikard with us as well, as some sort of teaching aid to test my self-control. I cursed inwardly.

Ulcers or bruised knuckles. Maybe both.

Karl was raptly staring at Albert’s approaching remote and probably hadn’t seen our movements. He went cross-eyed watching when Albert approached. When there was a sudden hissing noise of compressed gas being released, he jumped.

After the treatment had been administered, I watched Karl’s eyes go wide in startlement. His limbs jerked slightly and nonsense noises came out of his mouth for a few seconds before his eyes closed, and he slumped forward, slightly.

Albert’s remote returned to where it had been before. The dimple in the floor stayed under it the whole time.

The Stateman looked at me again, this time directly. “I can see you’re going to be useless until you get some answers. Yes. That type of remote is supported by the rug, magnetically, but the rug has no metal in it. It’s a cotton rug over carbon and ceramics with a fuel cell, made by Albert himself. Albert will print out a detailed document about it if you ask. The ancients used the same technology for automatons that cleaned their houses.”

Automatons. Cleaning houses.

I shook my head to get rid of images of Albert with a feather duster.

Pointing at Karl with a quick motion of her right wrist, Stateman Urda continued. “In a few seconds, he’ll be awake again, and much more clear-minded. I need you to appear angry enough to keep him mentally off-balance. If you would prefer, I’ll ask Rikard to come stand behind you. If you still can’t stay angry-looking, I’ll ask him to give you a backrub and whisper someone’s name in your ear.”

My vision started to go red as I realized what she was threatening. I didn’t dare move quickly, and I was too angry to speak at first. With deliberate slowness, I turned my head as I counted to five. When my count was finished, I could stare at her full-on with both eyes. Every muscle was tight, to keep me in total control of myself. My right shoulder blazed in pain.

The room had gone suddenly silent. All the little sounds of movement and breathing stopped. In my peripheral vision, Riko was staring at me with wide eyes, shaking his head minutely.

I locked eyes with the Stateman, easily this time, and snapped out words one at a time so I wouldn’t start yelling. “That. Won’t. Be. Necessary.”

She smiled like I’d paid her a compliment and looked away from me, towards Karl. “I’m going to break that temper of yours, Allen, and you’ll thank me for it. Then I’m going to try to teach you to use that impressive angry stare on command. But for now, I’ll use what I have at hand.”

Definitely ulcers. Maybe a stroke.

I turned away from her, also facing Karl. Albert was completely forgotten. As I rubbed my right shoulder with my left hand, I could feel fresh wetness tickling against my skin under the bandages. I’d torn the wound open again.

The room grew louder as people started breathing again, but nobody said a word. Rikard wasn’t smiling at me any longer. Instead, he was staring at the Stateman with a concerned look on his face. He knew what I would be planning to do to him if she made good on that promise and had him touch me while saying Marza’s name. She couldn’t force him to say the word.

Karl snorted a few seconds later and started speaking as he straightened in his seat. “Wow, that was one awful dre-”

Stateman Urda interrupted him. “It was not a dream. You, Karl Sweep, initiated hostilities between New Tokyo and New Charleston by attacking Allen Rickson. Evidence indicates your attack was premeditated, and your intent was to kill. Do you wish to contest the charges and submit to cross-examination by Albert?”

Karl’s face twitched and he looked at his bonds and straightened the stump of his leg out in front of him. Several seconds later, he responded. “No. I freely admit to premeditated violence with the intent to kill, in a time of war.”

“So, trying to kill Allen is your first violence offense?” The Stateman asked, gravely.

“Of course it is.” Karl responded, glancing at me. He grew visibly tense, and his eyes stayed on me for a second before he looked back at the Stateman.

Stateman Urda relaxed back in her chair, and crossed her left leg over her right while steepling her hands in front of her chest, and ducking her head slightly. “Not even any childhood offenses?”

He shrugged. “A few squabbles when I was very young. None that were remarkable enough for me to be censured.” He looked at me again. “Are you releasing your prison population to forage for you? I tried to kill him. I admit it. Does Mr. Angry really need to be here to stare at me?”

“Following whose orders?” The Stateman asked, with a sharp edge to her voice.

“What?  How does that matter?”

“You claim to be a model citizen, with no violence history. Yet, one day, you decide to go wander off into the woods with a bunch of friends and try to kill someone?” The Stateman paused. “This does not follow.”

Karl’s eyes bulged and he shook his head, whipping long blonde hair around his face. “We’re at war. Do you think I just gathered a few of my friends to go on a jaunty little murder trip?”

His eyes trailed over me again. “You don’t see me looking at him like he’s looking at me. He’s still got his arm. His trained attack animals damaged my leg too badly to save it. If anyone should be on trial here, it’s him. Two of his trained boars killed one person and injured four others. That makes him guilty of five counts of violence if I’m not mistaken.” He stared at me, and there was definitely real anger in his eyes. “They were all friends of mine. Including Dana, the one who died.”

It hurt to know the name of the person Hoss and Bigboy had killed, but I set it aside for later.

I started to speak out of turn, fully expecting to be told to shut up. It didn’t happen. I was allowed to speak, voice cracking with rage. “Hoss and Bigboy are…” I grimaced and resumed speaking. “…were very intelligent animals from a strain of swine that my family has been breeding for intelligence for thousands of generations. You shot at them from the ground. They were easily smart enough to recognize who wounded them, and fight back. I have never trained any of my swine to attack humans. I’m more than willing to submit to direct questioning by Albert to verify the truth of what I say.”

In the gentlest voice that I’d heard her use yet, the Stateman said, “Allen, please be silent unless I ask you to speak.”

It was all I could do to avoid looking at her like she’d grown a second head. Instead, I stared at Karl and thought about my boars, while trying to avoid thinking about who Dana might have been.

I realized I’d lost track of the conversation and focused back in to hear the Stateman ask, “So, Karl Sweep, you say that your attack was somehow justified because New Tokyo and New Charleston are at war?”

“No, not to Albert, anyway. That’s a violence law violation, with no question. But New Charleston does not have any civil jurisdiction over me for an action taken in a time of war.” He spat on the rug. “You wouldn’t charge your own militia in civil court for actions taken against the enemy unless the offenses were abhorrent. I did not attempt to cause any more pain than what would have been required to kill him.”

In a very serious tone, the Stateman responded. “I see. However, there is one flaw in your argument against civil criminal charges. I am the Stateman of New Charleston. I spoke to your Stateman yesterday. We speak every day with Albert’s assistance, at least briefly.” Her voice sharpened and she dropped her crossed leg to the floor and abruptly leaned forward. “Our states are not at war. Yet. Not even after you tried to kill one of my militia members.”

“What?” Karl looked stunned but recovered quickly. “I don’t believe you. You’re playing some sort of mental game with me.”

Leaning back in her chair, it was clear that the Stateman was in control. “I know what your orders were supposed to be. Many groups of you were sent to infiltrate our borders and find the easiest ways to move deep into New Charleston without using the roads. If your late plantings failed, and Stateman Taylor was unable to secure enough foodstuffs to feed your population over the winter, large numbers of people could move through the wilderness and try to bypass our defensive camps at the roads on the borders. Your Stateman didn’t tell me her plans, but it’s obvious in retrospect. Our scouts have seen signs of at least eight other groups along the border and found many hatchet-marked trees along easy-to-travel terrain.”

The two of them locked eyes for several seconds until he looked away.

I had never stopped staring at him since he woke, but he wasn’t looking at me any longer. I suspected that I was no longer needed, but I was still angry at him, so I kept staring, even though it was starting to feel silly.

“Stateman Taylor and I very much want to know who tried to start a war between us before we were done exhausting possible solutions. Albert hasn’t exercised his authority to override a civil court and begin cross-examining you, so I am willing to believe most of what you say about your prior personal violence history.”

She raised her right index finger and pointed at him. “Someone told you that we were at war, and we aren’t. That means someone wanted to start a war. Someone wanted you to start a war. You were probably pulled to the side and had your orders changed at the last minute by someone you thought had the authority to do so, or who was a viable mouthpiece for such a person.” The Stateman was a study of motionless aggression. “Who. Was. It?”

Karl was sweating heavily by this point, clearly in deep thought, but still saying nothing. Suddenly, he spoke. “No. I’m not telling you anything. For all I know, Stateman Taylor is-”

Stateman Urda interrupted him. “Albert. Did I speak with Stateman Taylor yesterday on this topic?”

“Yes.” Albert responded.

“Did Stateman Taylor request for me to try to find out from Karl Sweep who was responsible for nearly starting a war between us?”

Again, Albert responded. “Yes.”

Wow. I had no idea Statemen worked that closely with one another.

“Stateman Taylor did not necessarily tell you the truth,” Karl interjected, looking more confident.

“Albert, if I am unable to get the name of the violence offender that gave Karl unlawful orders, are you going to interrogate him to determine who it was that ordered him to commit violence?”

Albert’s remote took a noticeably longer time to respond. “Yes.”

Karl looked shocked. “What? I already admitted to-”

“Silence.” Stateman Urda said in a tone that commanded obedience, startling the prisoner.

He recovered quickly and started to open his mouth again.

Before he could say anything, the Stateman was speaking forcefully. “Karl, Albert doesn’t care about your guilt any longer at this point. However, he certainly does care about the person who ordered you to kill people. He knows the order didn’t come from Stateman Taylor, or he wouldn’t want to interrogate you if I fail to get you to tell me.”

“How does he-”

She cut him off again. “Albert watches Stateman Taylor as closely as he watches me.” Her voice got quite bitter. “I can’t sit on a toilet without Albert knowing all the details.”

“Then why isn’t he-”

Again, the Stateman gestured curtly with her right hand, silencing Karl. “If Statemen couldn’t solve most problems ourselves, why would Albert have given us the responsibility to lead States? I’m supervised closely, but Albert’s not holding my hand.  The same is true for every Stateman.”  She paused. “If you don’t give me a name, Albert will take it from you, and Stateman Taylor will-”

Karl interrupted the Stateman this time. “Fine. I will tell Albert. In private. I do not trust you. It is my understanding that we are in a state of war.” He looked at Albert’s remote. “Albert, will you verify if New Tokyo and New Charleston are at war?”

Silence.

Why didn’t he answer?

“Albert, answer the question, please.” Stateman Urda stated. “Despite his wounds, it is possible that Karl might attempt to commit violence against his jailers if he believes himself to be a war captive and not a civil criminal.”

Albert’s drone spoke less than a second later. “I have warned you about using me against your opponents, Stateman Urda. I have also advised you on many occasions that manufacturing scenarios or intentionally shaping events in attempts to force me to act as you wish is objectionable.” His voice sounded accusatory and slightly angry.

“I’m still holding my office,” Stateman Urda replied, confidently. “If you aren’t satisfied with the job I do, Albert, you can find someone else to do it. I ask you for nothing that I do not feel is necessary. If you do not act on what I feel is necessary, my performance will be inhibited. Answer his question, please.”

There was a long moment of silence before Albert replied tonelessly. “New Tokyo and New Charleston are not at war, Karl Sweep.” After a pause, he continued. “Have him taken to his holding cell. I will attend him privately with a different remote when he arrives.”

Addressing the prisoner with a less edgy voice than she had been using when speaking to him beforehand, the Stateman passed sentence. “After we determine what happened, Karl Sweep, Stateman Taylor and I will work together and reconsider your sentence. For now, you will be remanded to the New Charleston high-security prison, without possibility of parole, for the rest of your life.”

Don and Riko helped Karl to his foot, and then interlocked their hands and forearms between them, creating a seat of arms. As the two Sergeants carrying the prisoner left the tent, Lieutenant Davis and Rikard followed behind.

I ignored Rikard, looked at the Stateman, and then at Albert’s drone.

She smiled at me. “Go ahead and say it, Allen. Albert doesn’t care what you say about him.”

I shook my head. “First I have another question. Wouldn’t it have been easier for Stateman Taylor to get answers out of her own militia? Six of them made it back across the river.”

“She’s traveled to the camp that they came from already. None of the others knew who told Karl we were at war. He was their corporal. There were only a handful of people that could have told him we were at war, and been believed. I suspect she’ll have answers by tomorrow, if she doesn’t have it settled already.”

“Why hasn’t Albert taken action then? Why would he pretend to need to get the information from Karl? Won’t he tell you what Karl tells him?”

She shrugged. “Albert probably already knows who it was, and is watching them closely. When dealing with Albert, you have to realize that he will work with his officers, and for us, both as a tool and as an advisor, to a limited extent.  Mostly as a lie detector and a source of historical knowledge or forensics analysis.  However, he won’t actively make decisions outside of his sphere of interest unless we’re interfering with his plans. He doesn’t govern. Be thankful for that.”

I looked at Albert again. I couldn’t make myself talk in a normal voice, and found myself whispering. “You said he will help or offer advice, but it looked like you tricked him into helping you? He even complained about it.”

With a toothy grin and a shake of her head, she replied. “No. Not in the least. He knew exactly what I was doing.” She peered at me curiously with a slight tilt to her head. “Do you play chess?”

“I do. Not very well.” I shrugged, and my shoulder reminded me that I’d probably ripped out some stitches.

As I rubbed my shoulder gently, I continued. “My mother and I would play boardless games when we were weeding the kitchen garden, but that was before I was old enough to work alone with our swine.” I emphasized the word ‘swine,’ slightly.

“You understand at least enough to know how you can move pieces in such a way that it forces your opponent to take certain actions, correct?”

“Of course. Encroachment and entrapment.” I realized I sounded a little irritated and lowered my eyes in apology. “Sorry.”

She smiled, slightly. “Albert rarely moves against his own officers. Provided, of course, that we’re doing a satisfactory job. He uses significantly less processing power with us doing our jobs than he would without us. That passivity allows us to box him into situations where he has little choice other than doing what we want him to do, unless he wants to expend a lot more effort. Only some Countymen do it, but every single Stateman does.”

“Ah.” I said, realizing her point. “And Statemen are chosen from the ranks of Countymen, by Albert. He’s choosing for it, even if he’s… warning you when he thinks you’re close to overstepping.”

She nodded. “Exactly. Albert prefers to be passive and let us do as much as possible.”

I stared at her for a second, speechless. “Passive is definitely not how I would have described Albert when I spoke to him.”

The Stateman laughed a belly laugh. “If we get too aggressive with using him, or work counter to his desires, he’ll pull us up short faster than you can blink. If we force him to expend a lot of processing power or resources to avoid taking an action we’ve tried to box him into, it’s a real problem. If that happens more than a couple times, he will replace us rapidly if he can find someone competent, or start aggressively guiding us as he seeks a replacement.”

“How much of what you were saying about you and Stateman Taylor was true? It sounded like the two of you were collaborating fairly intensely. We might be in a war in a month or two, but you’re helping her find disruptive elements in her militia. Isn’t that counterproductive?”

“You aren’t thinking it all the way through, Allen. We aren’t fighting yet. We might not have to fight at all.” She leaned back in her chair, and her face grew very tired-looking. “If we Statemen are too passive, the people serving under us will do to us exactly what we do to Albert. They will tweak policy or their department activities this way and that, in ways that benefit or please them. Sometimes, it’s real improvement. Most of the time it’s harmless and ignorable personal quirks, and we just go with it. Every now and then one of them will do something disruptive, and make our lives miserable until we straighten out the mess. I had to relieve a county tax collector from office last year because they decided to raise taxes, unofficially. Albert removed that Countyman from office as well, because they should have taken action before I did.”

She kneaded the sides of her forehead with her thumbs. “In this case, whatever New Tokyo officer or NCO tried to start the war might believe an accelerated war escalation timetable is in the best interest of New Tokyo. I can easily imagine scenarios where a reasonably intelligent, aggressive-minded person might think it’s better to start the war they think is inevitable when New Charleston is not as well-prepared as we will be in another month.  If I could help Stateman Taylor identify her too-enthusiastic officer or NCO, it would have been a benefit to both of us.  If Karl had told me the information, I could have given it to her.  Since he didn’t, she’ll have to figure it out herself, or convince Albert to tell her.”

Something about our conversation was resonating. I could feel an idea bouncing around in the back of my mind, the right-brain toying with ideas and not keeping the left brain in the loop.

She noticed my distraction. “Are you OK, Allen? I saw you rubbing your shoulder. Do you need to go see Doctor Sven?”

She seemed legitimately concerned. I couldn’t tell if she meant it or not, and that bothered me. The Stateman seemed to wear emotions like hats.

I shook my head. “No need for the doctor.” I tapped the knuckles of my left hand against my skull. “Something just started bouncing around in the right half. It’s bouncing pretty hard too.”

“Bill, Tany.” The Stateman looked up at the man and woman who I had forgotten were present, even though they were standing right behind us. “I want you to repeat the conversation that Allen and I had, from the time when the prisoner was taken out.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” The woman, Tany, replied as the man said the same, nearly in unison.

The two of them stepped around the chairs and moved in front of us, faced each other, and started reciting exactly what the Stateman and I had said to one another. My memory was good, but their performance was remarkable. I was fairly sure they weren’t missing a word. They even had the cadence and tone right, as far as I could tell.

“Wow,” I said, in awe, as they finished.

The two of them grinned at me in response to my compliment, but said nothing.

“Impressive, isn’t it? Bill and Tany are fraternal twins. They both have near-perfect memory. I do too, but I’m getting older, and the memory isn’t a hundred percent any longer, especially when I’m short on sleep.” She looked at me and raised her finger accusingly. “This time listen to what they are saying, instead of just enjoying the show. See if we can get that idea of yours to shake out. I’m curious what it might be, if it’s somehow based on tonight’s conversations.”

Bill and Tany looked at me with slightly sour expressions.

I smiled. “Sorry, I was too impressed with what you were doing to pay attention to the actual words of the recitation.”

Tany lightly punched Bill in the shoulder. “You missed a pronoun anyway, goon.”

“Which one? Maybe it was because I was startled after the article you skipped?”

“I did not skip an article.” Tany huffed. Her brows drew together briefly before she grumbled. “Fine. I skipped an article. I guess you can be right, once.”

They launched into another recitation and this time, I listened to the conversation for content, not for entertainment.

Two more recitations and a lot of irritated glances from the twins later, the Stateman stood. “Sleep on it, Allen. Maybe it’ll come to you. The officers will want their tent back. They need sleep too.”

“It’s so close. I can feel it.” I complained.

She smiled. “It’s amazing what the boys in the closet can manage to solve when you let them work together without supervision. Try to sleep. You’re trying too hard.”

My mind latched onto the phrase ‘work together.’ And I gaped like a landed fish as the idea crystallized suddenly.

The Statemen are working together, now, even though they know they might be forced to fight to save the lives of their citizens.

Why aren’t they working together more?

Like wolves.

I looked up. The Stateman was standing at arm’s distance from me, staring at my face intently, her arms crossed in front of her chest. “Did it come to you?

I started speaking slowly. I still wasn’t fully certain I understood the politics. “You’re working closely with Stateman Taylor. Is that just because our states border one another?”

The Stateman looked at me with a puzzled expression. “I have a very strong working relationship with Stateman Taylor of New Tokyo, and Stateman Mario of New Ecuador. We have to work together to maintain regional economic stability. We trade quite a bit with new Singapore across the Inner Sea as well, so I have a fairly strong relationship with Stateman Zan.” She paused and frowned. “I’m not following where you’re going.”

“Ma’am, I don’t know your upbringing. Have you ever watched either dogs or wolves herding or hunting?”

“No. I’m no country girl.” She paused. “Explain. I’m tired.”

“Dogs or wolves can control or kill animals many times larger than them, even large predators like bears and big cats. They work together to-”

She shook her head rapidly. “It won’t work, Allen. I’ve already talked extensively with Stateman Taylor. The logistics for both of our states to combine forces and try to threaten or invade Second Landing are impossible. Our supply lines would be untenable across that much distance, and Second Landing has the canal systems which will help them make their defensive positions nearly impossible to breach.”

“Ma’am. You’re thinking too small.”

The Stateman raised an eyebrow at me and looked a little irritated. “I’m thinking small? Nobody’s told me that for decades. Tell me more.”

“You’re used to dealing with a couple preferred trading partners and that’s it.” I paused. “What do the other states think of Second Landing’s unwillingness to sell grain at reasonable rates?” I paused. “All the other states. Not just your strongest trading partners.”

“I imagine-”

Her eyes both popped fully open in a wide-eyed stare focused somewhere over my shoulder. A second later she closed her eyes, and opened them again and she met my eyes. “Are you serious?”

“Deadly serious, ma’am. Second Landing might think they can win a defensive fight with both New Tokyo and New Charleston on their southern border. And they might be right.” I shrugged. “I’ll trust you on that. But what if New Dublin were to threaten to help us from the north, or New Singapore and New Ecuador with sea-landed militia from either the north or south?”

The Stateman was staring at me as I finished explaining. I was almost certain she understood already, but I wanted to be absolutely certain. “What if all or even most of the other Statemen decided that Second Landing was out of line? What if you and Stateman Taylor could convince them it was in everyone’s best interest to act together to enforce global community standards of cooperation?”

“Threaten a global war, to prevent a regional war?” She whispered, with a stunned expression on her face.

I winced. “That’s a bit harsh. I prefer to think we’re setting a pack of livestock guardian dogs on a wayward bull, to bring it back to the herd.”

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19 thoughts on “Chapter 28

  1. This reminds me of a scene in HPMOR where someone says to Harry that when he has to chose between escalating or losing, Harry will always chose to escalate. I was wondering if something similar was going to happen in this story eventually. An escalation of an even worse threat to preemptively win a war.

    Very nice chapter!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great, I like how things are heating up.

    In the post, you said:
    “No.” I tapped my head with the knuckled of my left hand. Something just started bouncing around in the right half. It’s bouncing pretty hard too.”
    A double quote should be added before the word something.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good thing, since this is the culmination of the story, the ‘knockout’ event as it’s referred to by some writers. There will be an epilogue to follow up on what happens afterwards and offer hints to what the next story might be about, and then a lot of editing, and I’ll be sending this to publish.

      I’m not done with Allen and Nirvana, but I am going to be editing and publishing six already-written novels and writing a book in a different universe before I return to Set In Stone.

      Like

      • Huh, I thought this story would be longer, but I guess you planned on it ending soon after this.

        *shrug* I don’t know why I thought it would go on for much longer, but I guess the pacing has made me think that this is just an opening act to a much longer epic.

        But good chapter!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Here’s how the story went for me.

          There’s a guy, he raises pigs (or swine, whatever). He trains them too. He lives with his family who are farmers. He wants to marry another farmer’s daughter. Oh no, calamity, calamity was really bad for neighboring country who might want to start a war now. If he goes to war he might die, or go to prison forever. He goes off to join the Army. They start building, preparing. His pigs are killed. He has a super smart idea which causes primary computer intelligence that secretly runs the world to tell him that as long as he promises never to reveal the idea to anyone else, he will live a long (presumably happy) life. As a result of that idea, the war is prevented. The end. Maybe I’m spoiled by online authors like Wildbow, Drew Hayes, Jim Zoetewey, George M. Frost, Chrysalis, Maddirose, but this kind of seems like the intro to the story, and not the actual story itself.

          Reject Hero also seemed to sort of cut off just as I was really getting involved with the primary character. Guy gets new powers, things get crazy, son is dating supervillain’s superhero daughter, guy figures out truth behind dinosaur people, gets trapped in alternate dimension, eats self to survive, the end.

          Like

        • I have specifically chosen to write in the style of a novel instead of a long chronicle. Act I, Act II, Act III, and a clear ending.

          When I started, I didn’t understand what I was doing with story structure, but I knew I didn’t want to write one thing for a very, very long time.

          I have a great deal of respect for a lot of other webfiction writers, but they typically do not write in a fashion that’s easily portable to novel-length content.

          I’m the opposite. My writing has always been intended for becoming novels, though the four books of Symbiote need a LOT more work than Set In Stone will, to ready them for publishing (I might not even publish the fourth book of Symbiote at all without a drastic reworking)

          What you see in my web fiction is basically an early draft of a novel. The finished stories will be significantly different, not in what happens overall, but in how the story is told and how the pieces are put together.

          For example, I’ve decided that I do not like the words Countyman and Stateman because they falsely indicate maleness. The rural setting already has strong elements of a male-dominated society, even though it definitely isn’t, if you look closely. I’m strongly leading towards the androgynous titles ‘Primus’ and ‘Secundus’ to replace ‘Stateman’ and ‘Countyman.’

          I started writing this before I had read some of the books I bought about plot and structure. There will be some scene cuts to speed up parts of the story where intensity droops.

          Intentional misspellings of elefant will be corrected to elephant. It adds nothing and only distracts readers. Character names are going to be the only oddly spelled words.

          I will be creating a glossary and cast of characters for the published version, and possibly a map.

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        • I like the Statesman and Countyman because they are so ordinary. You have a global machine intelligence running a pastoral farm society. Primus and Secundus would break that by being outlandish. Go with something that sounds rural. County head or magistrate or some such

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  3. She seems like good mentor for Allen. I like how you’re removing the Allen bomb from the situation while he continues building political clout. Obviously, Albert picked the right thinker to help his Statesmen.
    :-))

    Suggestions
    was unable to secure enough foodstuffs to feed you population
    was unable to secure enough foodstuffs to feed your population

    than she had been using when speaking to him up beforehand
    than she had been using when speaking to him beforehand

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very nice chapter, feels to me like there is a lot of potential for further stories of Allen in his expanding world, ones Id like to read. Its selfish, but im a little sad you’re not continueing with his story(for now ;)).
    Ive followed you since symbiote and in a general sense I think you are growing rapidly as a writer, this story has a buildup and pacing thats very good. The conversations are believable, draw you in. The science is believable and (as far as i can see) well researched.
    Looking forward to more and ill pick the story up when its available in store.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!!

      I will be returning to Allen, but I believe I’ll have to pace myself and have multiple projects (at least one being less rational) going so that I can jump back and forth between them. I’ll also need to be more organized for subsequent Set In Stone novels, as a great deal of my writing pain this time around was due to trying to write in a rational fashion, about people smarter than me, without being meticulous in my pre-writing planning. I know better next time!

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